Stanley's blog

17th CCP Congress

The implications of what happened at the 17th five-year Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will not be fully known until after the National Congress in March 2008, when the new government will finally be in place and all the new members of the State Council (ministers) appointed.

Contrary to what many believe, the PRC is authoritarian but not totalitarian nor a monolithic dictatorship. There are many political, provincial and other interest groups and influences at work ‘behind the curtain’, and there is is extensive and quite open policy debate on most issues, not only within the Party behind closed doors, but also within think tanks, academia, and to a limited extent the media.

China is nevertheless, run by the CCP which is led by the nine-person Standing Committee of its Politburo. The system has evolved over the past 30 years. There is no single dominant leader, unlike under Mao. Vladimir Putin is far more powerful than Hu Jintao.

Some early reflections are possible:

  • Hu Jintao won the battle against the ‘conservative left’and the pace of reform will be maintained.
  • His position has been strengthened, but not to the extent that he would have liked.
  • Hu Jintao spelt out frankly and in detail the problems the country faces.
  • Hu Jintao recognised in his speech that the country’s progress falls short of the people’s expectations.
  • His theme was “scientific”, ie sustainable, development.
  • The “harmonious society” and now “scientific development” are not mere rhetoric, but whether in the end they will have real content and succeed in imposing real policy changes remains to be seen.
  • He stated that and that the orderly widening of participation in political society is essential, making 15 references to the principle.
  • Hu Jintao pledged that the fight against corruption will continue.
  • Thus, building a harmonious society entails developing the social infrastructure and policies of health care, social security and poverty alleviation.
  • He mentioned “democracy” or “democratic” 61 times in his closing speech. This is not, of course, western-style democracy but partial democratisation of the Communist Party.
  • There were press conferences for the first time – again not western-style but nevertheless symbolically significant.
  • The last Standing Committee was composed entirely of engineers, but the two leading newcomers have law, economics and social science backgrounds lawyer.
  • The political opening up is gradual and there is unlikely to be major changes before the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

Pace of reform

There has been an ongoing battle within the CCP between the ‘left-wingers’ who want to reverse some of the reforms and the right-wingers who wish to continue along the current path: this time the reformers won. There are many who regard the CCP as the party of the peasants and workers and resent the growing influence within the Party of the ‘capitalist’ entrepreneurs: this struggle is not over.

Hu Jintao’s position

The appointment of Xi Jinping as the sixth-ranking Standing Committee member confirms that the Congress was not a complete victory for Hu Jintao. Xi is a ‘favourite son’ of the still influential, former Party Secretary & President Jiang Zemin. Li Keqiang, at number seven, was Hu Jintao’s preferred choice.

China’s problems

Hu made no attempt to play down the problems the country faces – on the contrary: growth achieved at an excessive cost of resources and the environment; overall low productivity; the urban-rural imbalance; the economic and social imbalance; uneven income distribution; safety at work; housing deficiencies; the weak foundations of agriculture; long-term structural and institutional obstacles which slow down development; education; public health; corruption; weak capacity for independent innovation; the deficit in the Party’s governance capability; the failings of the administration of justice and public order; the need to improve democracy and the legal system …


Development must not be achieved at all costs: it must be sustainable and this means in particular environmentally.

However, the CPC’s legitimacy depends on sustained economic growth, and if a choice has to be made between development and sustainability, development is likely to win.


Hu Jintao clearly wishes to increase intra-Party democracy:

“We need to improve institutions for democracy, diversify its forms and expand its channels, and we need to carry out democratic election, decision-making, administration and oversight in accordance with the law to guarantee the people’s rights to be informed, to participate, to be heard, and to oversee

We will expand intra-Party democracy to develop people’s democracy and increase intra-Party harmony to promote social harmony. We need to respect the principal position of Party members, guarantee their democratic rights, increase transparency in Party affairs and create favorable conditions for democratic discussions within the Party.”

We will reform the intra-Party electoral system and improve the system for nominating candidates and electoral methods. We will spread the practice in which candidates for leading positions in primary Party organizations are recommended both by Party members and the public in an open manner and by the Party organization at the next higher level, gradually extend direct election of leading members in primary Party organizations to more places, and explore various ways to expand intra-Party democracy at the primary level.

Democracy means ‘socialist democracy’ but Hu Jintao is using verbal dexterity to combine what appear to be two contradictory trends of thought. He said that:

In the historical course of reform and opening up, the Party has combined adhering to the basic tenets of Marxism with adapting it to Chinese conditions, upholding the Four Cardinal Principles with adhering to the reform and opening up policy, respecting the people’s pioneering initiative with strengthening the Party’s leadership,”

However, the Four Cardinal Principles are “adhering to the socialist road, adhering to the people’s democratic dictatorship, adhering to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, and adhering to the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” These were evoked by Deng Xiaoping and are now enshrined in the Constitution.

Hu stated that reform and opening up entailed:

adhering to the basic system of socialism with developing the market economy, effecting changes in the economic base with promoting reform of the superstructure, developing the productive forces with improving the cultural and ethical quality of the whole nation, raising efficiency with promoting social equity, pursuing independent development with taking part in economic globalization, promoting reform and development with maintaining social stability, and advancing the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics with making progress in the great new undertaking to build the Party.

Taking the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics means we will, under the leadership of the CPC and in light of China’s basic conditions, take economic development as the central task, adhere to the Four Cardinal Principles and persevere in reform and opening up, release and develop the productive forces, consolidate and improve the socialist system, develop the socialist market economy, socialist democracy, an advanced socialist culture and a harmonious socialist society, and make China a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious modern socialist country.

The main reason this path is completely correct and can lead China to development and progress is that we have adhered to the basic tenets of scientific socialism and in the meantime added to them distinct Chinese characteristics in light of China’s conditions and the features of the times. In contemporary China, to stay true to socialism means to keep to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Hu knows that the Communist Party must reform if it is to survive as the all-pervading ‘voice of the people’. This means some internal elections, greater transparency and reduced corruption. At the same time, local elections are to be encouraged as these help to make the people feel involved and can reduce corruption.

This is limited reform, not western-style democracy, but it is a recognition of the need for the people to feel included, in the interests of the sustenance of the Party, and is the continuation of a clear trend. However, the political opening up is gradual and there are unlikely to be major changes before the 18th Party Congress in 2012

Human rights

We must respect and safeguard human rights, and ensure the equal right to participation and development for all members of society in accordance with the law. Party organizations at all levels and all Party members must act under the Constitution and laws on their own initiative and take the lead in upholding the authority of the Constitution and laws.

In saying this, the President & Party Secretary and his colleagues well know that it is in the interests of the Party and the country to curb abuses of human rights.

It may be little but it is noticeable that Beijing is now willing to discuss the death penalty and has stopped summary executions: all death sentences must be confirmed by the People’s Supreme Court. The existence of Internet censorship is now admitted and can therefore be discussed.

These developments may be too slow, but at least the overall trend is in the right direction.

Rule of law

“Socialist democracy has continued to develop and we have made steady progress in implementing the rule of law as a fundamental principle, but efforts to improve democracy and the legal system fall somewhat short of the need to expand people’s democracy and promote economic and social development, and political restructuring has to be deepened.”

Again, Hu recognises the problem but progress is slow.

CPC Politburo Standing Committee

The nine-person governing body will comprise (in order of precedence) five incumbents: Hu Jintao, Wu Bangguo, Wen Jiabao, Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun; and four newcomers: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang.

  • Xi Jinping is former Shanghai Party Secretary with a celebrity folk-singing wife, Peng Liyuan, far better known than he is. His education is in social science and law.
  • Li Keqiang, the new Vice Premier of the State Council (Government Cabinet) is former Secretary of the CPC Liaoning Provincial Committee. He has degrees in law and economics.
  • He Guoqiang, the new head of the Central Commission for discipline, was Minister of the CPC Central Committee Organisation Department. He is an engineer by discipline.
  • Zhou Yongkang, the new head of the Central Committee of Politics & Law, is also an engineer with long experience in the oil industry.

There is a clear recognition that the legitimacy of the Communist Party depends on continued economic and social progress and stability which dictates the need for a greater involvement of the stakeholders in order to build a harmonious society.

In 2012, seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee will have reached the compulsory retiring age of 68, and only then will be begin to see the post-Cultural Revolution leaders directing the country.

Author :


  1. Stanley’s comment on the 17th CCP Congress is quite wise and balanced. The Congress itself is in fact the result of a very intense internal debate on the future of China and the place of China in the world which runs through each sector of the Chinese society. Generally speaking sinologists stick too closely to the balance of power among the ruling bodies of the Communist Party, in particular the Standing Committee. This view corresponds to the “peoplelisation” of the political life. Everything is seen as a struggle at the top. And in Europe we tend to reduce Chinese life and orientations to this struggle at the top. It confirms our prejudice that China is nothing else than a dictature where citizens have no say on their destiny. Our foundation has many partnerships in China and we can witness the strength of the internal debate. We have just achieved the second China Europe Forum. It has been a unique opportunity for dialogue between 300 Chinese participants and 600 European participants coming from different socioprofessional backgrounds and different regions of China and Europe. A whole range of topics of common concerns have been discussed through 46 workshops (

    A dialogue of a new nature has started : between the Chinese and the Europeans, but also and more amazingly, among the Europeans and among the Chinese. Many people in Europe doubted that a true discussion would be possible and feared « diplomatic » talks and conformism. They were pleasantly surprised. The analysis of the workshops’ outputs shows that beyond the tremendous differences of context, culture and history, our societies are facing four common challenges :
    – inventing a new model of development;
    – relying on our cultural heritage and on common values to built the future;
    – accepting our status of global stakeholder and inventing together the regulations, institutions and methods for a real global governance;
    – rethinking societal regulations in a broader sense – the governance – to address appropriatley the coming challenges that are new in scale and in complexity.

    These four issues can give a common ground for a continuing dialogue among both societies and these dialogues are very necessary.
    Europe has a unique role to play in helping China to transform itself and it is for the European Union a very fundamental objective. But much too often we pretend to bring the changes through giving moral lessons about democracy or human rights. The conventional visit of a Europen Head of State, very lately, the one of Nicolas Sarkozy, is formatted to satisfy European or national public opinion. It is two folds : giving moral lessons and signing contracts. And public opinion requires an impossible balance between these two aspects. This is a very superficial approach. Would Europe really want to help China to move on, it should definitely act in a new way by supporting a large flow of dialogue among both societies. This will be the purpose of the follow up of the second China Europe Forum.
    Stanley in his blog quote Monnet’s axiom “Thought cannot be divorced from action” and about Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to China, he quotes the English proverb “actions speak louder than words”. I fully share these two mottos. Keeping the spirit of the second Forum rolling is the best way to show the importance Europe gives to the dialogue with China.


    China analysts have trouble giving a name to the current Chinese political system. It is an attempt at an authoritarian state and is certainly unitary from a top-down perspective.

    But the local reality is that county or village-level government is often at odds with more senior levels, especially when it comes to granting contracts to industry and enterprise to use land in their district, often against local wishes.

    Implementation of laws is one of Beijing’s greatest challenges – thus the drive against corruption and the recent end of 4,000 years of agricultural taxes. Too many government levels has meant too many opportunities for officials to make a corrupt buck unnoticed. But the end of agricultural taxes has starved some village governments of funds (particularly in poorer areas, where their only income is from agricultural taxes).

    This may therefore lead to political rationalisation, with several villages subsumed into single political entities – a positive development. Anecdotally, Rob Gifford (former NPR China correspondent and author of China Road) told me recently that peasants he interviewed a year ago had been angry against local government then but that this year they found things much improved due to the end of this tax.


    Opinions vary, but Hu looks weaker, having failed to get many of his own men into the Politburo Standing Committee, the key body. Zeng Qinghong has at least gone (a powerful Jiang Zemin ally) but the business-before-everything approach looks to be foremost in the new selection, notably in the presidential favourite Xi Jinping. In policy terms, this means more wrangling between different viewpoints (Hu favouring a more equitable and sustainable form of growth, a more morally upright party and better provision of social services). Nothing much will happen before the Olympics anyway, but Hu will need to move fast to address China’s most pressing challenges, notably environmental degradation, rising inequality (between coast and interior, urban and rural areas), inflation (and whether to allow the yuan to rise more quickly) and dangerous shortfalls in social services, as well as in education.

    Although many provincial appointments are Hu proteges or pickings, the president will be very much constrained in his attempt to address China’s problems by a Standing Committee eager to put growth above all things, and to see China get rich before it has to pay for becoming too old, too polluted or too corrupt.

  3. I gather that the 2nd China Europe Forum, held in Brussels in October was very successful and that the 3rd one is now being planned.

    Although the jury is out, Hu Jintao’s position is, in my opionion, stronger than Alexander suggests.

  4. Xi Jinping has just been appointed head of the all-important Central Party School. Further reason to believe that he, not Hu’s favourite Li Keqiang, will assume the presidency in 2012.

  5. This comes as no surprise following Xi becoming no 6 and Li no 7 in the pecking order of the Politburo Standing Committee.

Comments are closed.